Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko ruled out new elections on Monday as thousands of workers took to the streets of Minsk once again demanding his resignation while his exiled election challenger announced that she was “ready” to lead the country.
Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, said on Monday she was ready to steer the nation towards new elections. In a video address from Lithuania, Tikhanouskaya urged security and law enforcement officers to switch sides from Lukashenko’s government, saying their past behaviour would be forgiven if they did so now.
Her video was released a day after Belarusians chanting “Step down!” filled the centre of the capital Minsk in the biggest protest so far against what they said was the fraudulent re-election a week ago of longtime president Lukashenko.
“I am ready to take responsibility and act as a national leader during this period,” Tikhanouskaya stated in her address, saying it was essential to make the most of the momentum generated by a week of protests.
Belarus challenger Tikhanouskaya ‘ready to act as national leader’
The former English teacher has become one of the leading opposition figures against Lukashenko, who is struggling to contain a wave of mass protests and strikes that pose the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule of the country.
She fled abroad last week, saying she had done so for the safety of her children, but quickly began releasing new videos calling for anti-government protests to continue.
The unrest has spread to sections of society normally seen as loyal to the president, as workers from large state factories staged walkouts and some police, journalists from state media, and a sitting ambassador came out in support of the protesters.
Lukashenko floats constitutional reform
Opponents of Lukashenko say he rigged the August 9 presidential election to secure a sixth term in power. He denies losing, citing official results that gave him just over 80 percent of the vote.
The veteran leader ruled out holding another election in remarks Monday carried by Belarusian media.
“We held elections already. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections,” he was quoted as saying.
Lukashenko, who was visiting a tractor factory in Minsk, said he might be willing to look at constitutional reforms that would allow for a form of power-sharing, the Belta state news agency reported.
But he said he was not prepared to do so under pressure from the current protests, which are the most widespread of his 26 years in power.
Lukashenko said later on Monday that a new presidential election could be held after the country adopts a new constitution, the RIA news agency reported.
The veteran leader, who has been in power since 1994, faced heckling from the factory workers, with people chanting “Step down!” as he tried to answer their questions.
As he spoke, over 5,000 striking workers from the Minsk Tractor Works plant marched down the streets of the city, demanding that Lukashenko cede his post to Tikhanouskaya.
EU mulls further sanctions
Russia’s Vladimir Putin told Lukashenko on Sunday that Moscow was ready to assist Belarus in accordance with a collective military pact if necessary.
The Kremlin said that external pressure was being applied to the country, without saying where from.
The European Union has launched a process of imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials responsible for election fraud and a crackdown on protests that followed the disputed vote.
On Wednesday the 27 EU leaders will hold emergency talks to discuss what other support they can extend to Belarus.
Initial ideas include starting a fund for victims of repression there, funding projects to support media pluralism, advising on police reform, enhancing student exchanges with the EU as well as granting easier access to the bloc’s labour market for Belarusian workers.
Poland, the Czech Republic, the three Baltic states and Denmark have also called for EU mediation between Lukashenko and the opposition.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)